A The pensioner shuffles around a pitch in west London and Chris Ramsey drops to one knee. “Not everyone makes it, but I would say a third of players make it given a second chance,” Ramsey concluded to his audience of a dozen attentive young men.
The message of hope is a welcome one for a group of former football academics taking part in a pilot residential training camp hosted by Behind the White Lines. The guest appearance by Ramsey, the former Swindon, Southend and Brighton full-back, follows that of former Crystal Palace winger Yannick Bolasie a day earlier. Both were invited by former England international Steven Caulker. By the way, BTWL is his idea, into which he put his heart, soul and money. “At 26 I was without a club,” he says when asked why. “I didn’t know where to go, who to turn to, who I even was. I had no identity. It took me a long time to understand that.”
Caulker, now 31, was one of the lucky ones. His footballing CV – including more than 100 appearances in the Premier League, mainly with Tottenham, Cardiff and QPR – enabled him to rebuild in Turkey. “But where do those who are 18 or 19 years old and have nothing behind them go?” he asks. Frankly, the answer is often nowhere, so Caulker wants to independently fill that void with versatile retreats. Retreats that don’t cost the players anything.
Daily training is led by David Webb, who has held senior football positions at Tottenham, Bournemouth and Östersund. Jacob Mellis – formerly of Chelsea – and former Everton youth team goalkeeper John O’Toole are helping with preparations for a top-flight game that will be attended by a host of scouts.
For some, it could mean a possible return to professional sports. But maybe not. And that’s OK, because while Caulker will be happy to facilitate second chances, BTWL begins and ends with people, not football.
Player support is developing rapidly in professional sports, but aftercare is lagging behind. Yes, clubs are being encouraged to take over the management of Crystal Palace and put together three-year packages after the release. But the resources are either simply not there or are not being directed in the right direction.
The result? Hundreds of young adults – boys, actually – feel lost every summer. For at least a few days, BTWL created a safe space in the green surroundings of the University of Roehampton (which generously supported the project by providing food and accommodation) where a small number of these people could be heard. To be validated and begin healing.
As being released from an academy can be traumatic, everyone present was told that their chances of a career at the highest level were very slim. But as one participant put it: “You have to trust that you will be the one (who can do it). That’s where you have to put all your focus – tunnel vision.”
And this inextricably links football with identity, with several players explaining that they exist simply as “footballers” among their friends, communities and even families. Even at a young age, questions about personal well-being were replaced by questions about how football was going.
Liberation can therefore lead to feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment. But there is no place to process these emotions and the countless other experiences. On the contrary, football has its own clichéd jargon, most of which is aimed at suppressing feelings. Phrases like “You just get back up and keep going,” “That’s football,” and others with similar sentiments characterize conversations with players in camp.
Sue Parris, a freelance athlete welfare and training specialist who previously spent eight years in Brighton, is with BTWL for a week: “I don’t think the football environment has the power of language and the way we they use, taken into account,” she says. And the byproduct is that, in order to adapt, players “lose the ability to be real, to be themselves.”
Surely, even though they don’t even know what it means to “be themselves”? “No,” Parris agrees. “But what they do know is how to pretend to be someone else. And many of them can see what’s happening for them – but they can’t talk about it.”
At least they haven’t been able to so far. Parris offers her informal ear any time of the week, as do all BTWL employees. And the power of peers is already evident – 72 hours into the experience, one player admits a simple but insightful insight. “Sometimes you think you’re alone, but you’re actually not,” he says. “When I talk to some of the guys, I feel like they just take my story and repeat it. We go through the same things whether in football or outside of it.”
And that’s the final piece of the BTWL puzzle: the week is designed to open the mind to the possibility that there is something other than the game. Several companies, including two from the financial sector, come by to offer trial sessions. Prof. Bari Malik gives a lecture on entrepreneurship. The group discovers that some of them already have part-time jobs, with one renting out his car to friends. And higher education is also possible in Roehampton.
What next? In some ways, Caulker is thinking big. He wants to develop and was smart enough to realize that a week in practice has more value than an idea on paper. He was right – before the first camp is over, several other venues have expressed interest in hosting it. But Caulker focuses on the small picture in other ways, too. “If just one of the guys gets something out of the week, it will be worth it,” he says.